Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.

Quick! Stop That Runaway Character!

I’ve been doing readings from my award-winning fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And casts authors as at least mildly eccentric, and not entirely in control of themselves or their work when the truth is completely different.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving me advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Why I Love Writing Mysteries

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers in more than one language.  My mother read Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie as well as Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell. Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it. If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home, curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home reading them. Each one seemed to open to a world that was larger, more fascinating, and more liberating than my cramped classroom. Nowadays, I would probably be diagnosed as needing of Ritalin, but what I wanted was escape.

Thinking man silhouette and red sunset on a ferryBut not just from class. My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed. Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history. Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored. It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published 25 books in many genres and almost a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read even one mystery of mine.  But writing and publishing each of them, I’ve thought of her. I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke half a dozen languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy. Remembering all that makes me happy.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are available from Amazon.

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

business-woman-thinkingThe thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Tina-TurnerCuriously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models, no even less: inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

An Author’s Characters On the Loose?

I’ve been doing readings from my fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving advice.

It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.